TAMPA, Fla. — This ride has been a winning lottery ticket. There are few other ways to describe Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier’s career. Perhaps a pot of gold. A four-leaf clover. Triple sevens. A shooting star across a clear night sky.
How else to explain a 13-season career, all with the Lightning, that will reach its 1,000th game when Tampa Bay plays at the New York Islanders on Monday afternoon? How else to explain an outlier?
“It has been a fun ride,” Lecavalier said last Wednesday, three days before the Lightning’s season-opening victory over the Washington Capitals at Tampa Bay Times Forum. “I want to play many more years. It’s something important for me. It’s going to be a special game, but that’s it. I’ve obviously got to move on.”
True, but this feat is worth more than a bullet point buried at the bottom of the game notes. A verbal victory lap can be excused for the 32-year-old Ile Bizard, Quebec, native before he presses on to No. 1,001. Just look at the odds of a prolonged stay in the NHL, which are about as good as the chances of Warren Sapp catching Usain Bolt in a dead sprint.
According to Quanthockey.com in data collected from all forwards, defensemen and goalies who played their last regular-season game before or during the 2008-09 season, in addition to some players who retired after that campaign:
More than half of all participants appeared in fewer than 100 games.
For about 5 percent of players, their first NHL game was also their last.
More than 20 percent of retired players appeared in one season.
The average NHL career lasted between five and six seasons.
Only 4 percent of players skated for more than 1,000 games.
That means Lecavalier is about to become one of every 25 players to be bruised, battered and bloodied in the NHL’s unforgiving lifestyle and crack the 1K mark. That means, through will and work and perhaps a few breaks along the way, he has made his own luck in a league that exposes the meek.
Some lottery ticket, indeed. Some story to tell.
“It’s a process that you have to go through,” Lecavalier told FOXSportsFlorida.com about transitioning into a veteran. “I enjoyed it when I was young, and now I enjoy it the way it is now, too. When you’re a rookie, everything is new. You’re playing with your idols. I was playing with Wendel Clark and Stephane Richer and all these great players. Just to play with them was unbelievable. Dave Andreychuk, winning a Cup with him (in the 2003-04 season). For me, the whole thing has been a lot of fun.”
The whole thing has worked well for the Lightning, too. Lecavalier has 844 points — 470 assists and 374 goals — through 999 games. Production-wise, his best season came in the 2006-07 campaign, when he totaled 108 points and a career-high 52 goals.
Try to find room for more lines on his resume as Mr. Big Bolt. He’s a four-time All-Star. He won the Maurice Richard Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s top goal-scorer, in 2007. He won the King Clancy Trophy, awarded to a player with notable humanitarian contributions, in 2008.
He has become a franchise face. He has become a tie to the Lightning’s early past (their inaugural season was the 1992-93 campaign). Those who share a dressing room with him call him a leader, a pro’s pro, a consummate coworker. He has been praised as someone who has enriched the region with his play on the ice and work with the Vinny Lecavalier Foundation, which has strived since 2003 to create hope for children and families battling pediatric cancer and blood disorders. Consistency is only part of his profile.
“The biggest reward is being in last place for so many years, and in the span of three years, winning the cup,” Lecavalier said. “I think that’s what made it exciting. From thinking, ‘Wow, this team isn’t going anywhere’ to two years later winning it, it was fun. That was a fun time. You could see the progress and what the organization was doing.”
One thousand is a clean, round number to pause and study a growing legacy. Milestones are tidy markers. They’re created to remind us that journeys are never forever, never permanent.
We need checkpoints to reflect on what has been achieved, on what is yet to come. For those near Lecavalier daily, they understand his work is far from complete.
“A thousand games, very few guys get to that,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “I think he did it being at a young age right now, really when you look at it. That’s extremely impressive.”
“Vinny is our leader,” said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, Lecavalier’s teammate since the 2008-09 season. “For him to play 1,000 games with the same team is pretty special. . . . It will be a great experience for us all to share that moment with him. That is something that is a true testament to the professional that he is, both on and off the ice and how hard he works. I’m glad to be part of it.”
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” said Lightning winger Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier’s teammate since the 2000-01 season. “Obviously, 1,000 games, not many guys get there. He’s had a great career — what he has done in Tampa on the ice and off the ice as well. . . . He has affected many people’s lives, obviously, with his foundation. He is a true representation of what it is to be a face of a franchise for a long time.”
The franchise’s face was back in his element Friday, a little more than a day before he scored a first-period goal to help the Bolts beat the Capitals. He prepared to exit the Lightning’s dressing room at Tampa Bay Times Forum after a short practice, messages of unity written in blue block letters on a wall above him: “OUR PUCK*LIGHTNING TRANSITION*PACK MENTALITY*TOTAL FOCUS.”
“It’s kind of different each year,” Lecavalier said, shortly before walking away. “It’s always exciting. The first game, the opener, is always exciting. It never really gets old.”
After almost 1,000 games, neither do the memories. Always and forever, it’s better to have longevity than luck.